When infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, most individuals will remain clinically healthy but latently infected. Latent infection has been proposed to partially involve M. tuberculosis in a nonreplicating stage, which therefore represents an M. tuberculosis phenotype that the immune system most likely will encounter during latency. It is therefore relevant to examine how this particular nonreplicating form of M. tuberculosis interacts with the host immune system. To study this, we first induced a state of nonreplication through prolonged nutrient starvation of M. tuberculosis in vitro. This resulted in nonreplicating persistence even after prolonged culture in phosphate-buffered saline. Infection with either exponentially growing M. tuberculosis or nutrient-starved M. tuberculosis resulted in similar lung CFU levels in the first phase of the infection. However, between week 3 and 6 postinfection, there was a very pronounced increase in bacterial levels and associated lung pathology in nutrient-starved-M. tuberculosis-infected mice. This was associated with a shift from CD4 T cells that coexpressed gamma interferon (IFN-γ) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) or IFN-γ, TNF-α, and interleukin-2 to T cells that only expressed IFN-γ. Thus, nonreplicating M. tuberculosis induced through nutrient starvation promotes a bacterial form that is genetically identical to exponentially growing M. tuberculosis yet characterized by a differential impact on the immune system that may be involved in undermining host antimycobacterial immunity and facilitate increased pathology and transmission.
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